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Picture the Concept . . .

Eleanor Antin, the subject of a 30-year LACMA retrospective, has made a mark playing with ideas in myriad personae. But who is she really?

May 16, 1999|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

SAN DIEGO — Eleanor Antin has gotten past the gnawing anxiety. Or, as she succinctly puts it: "The initial weirdness is over."

Three years ago, when curator Howard Fox called to invite her to present her work in a 30-year retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Antin responded, as many artists do, with a coddled mixture of excitement and trepidation--excitement over an honor that comes to relatively few, trepidation over seeing her life's work laid bare, all at once.

"Actually, one part of me was very interested to see the continuity beneath the disparate look on the surface of things, to see where there was a real internal logic," she recalls, exuding the sheer confidence of an artist whose work has been widely influential for more than a quarter-century. At 64, Antin is a doyenne of feminist art in general, and Conceptual and multimedia performance art in particular.

But the dark doubt was there, too.

"I haven't thought of half of these works in years," she continued. "I thought, what if I look at them and discover my life was a waste? I have David, my husband; I have Blaise, my son; and I adore them. But, basically I spent my time making art. What if it was a waste of time?"

We are sitting at a small table in Antin's now nearly empty studio on the campus of UC San Diego, where the diminutive live-wire has taught since 1975. It's April, and an unseasonably cold drizzle is dampening the eucalyptus grove outside. Between us on the table is a Carravagesque wicker basket of fruit, together with a decidedly un-Carravagesque basket of bagels, lox and cream cheese.

More than three dozen of Antin's works, ranging from single watercolors and photographs to room-size installations incorporating video and film, have long since been packed and shipped up the I-5 to LACMA (the exhibition opens to the public next Sunday). There they will join other examples of Antin's multifaceted work, borrowed from public and private collections.

Several are classics. From the Art Institute of Chicago comes "Carving: A Traditional Sculpture" (1972), 32 self-portrait photographs in which Antin recorded the progress of a 30-day crash diet, compiling a withering sendup of social norms concerning beauty. From the Whitney Museum of American Art there's "The Nightingale Family Album and My Tour of Duty in the Crimea" (1977), a pseudo-documentary suite of 63 sepia-toned photographs, "aged" in tea, deriving from the Victorian-era exploits of Florence Nightingale, originator of modern nursing. And, there's "100 Boots" (1971-73), a picaresque "photo-novella" of picture postcards chronicling the cross-country travels of 50 pairs of black boots, which first gained her notoriety; at LACMA, the boots themselves will also be on display, for the first time in 26 years.

Antin's feeling of "initial weirdness" about the survey of her life's work boiled down to a sudden, unexpected confrontation with mortality--one whose immediacy was compounded by the recent death of her mother after a difficult struggle with Alzheimer's disease.

"I thought, 'Oh my God! I'm dead!' Y'know?" she says now, laughing at the memory of Fox's invitation. "And I am determined to go on!"

Finally, though, there wasn't time for nervousness. Mounting a full-scale museum retrospective takes a huge amount of work, and work has always been a driving force for Antin. I found that out firsthand in 1977, when I was a curator at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, (now called the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego) and organized a show with her. "The Angel of Mercy" included several parts: the two sets of narrative photographs now in the Whitney's collection, which make up an elaborate costume-drama; 20 life-size cutout figures based on the characters in the photographs and made of painted Masonite mounted on wheels, arranged in the gallery as tableaux; and, finally, an hourlong performance, in which Antin, dressed in full Nightingale regalia, wheels around the cutouts and plays all 20 parts in the harrowing tale--heroic nurse, horrified parents, wounded soldiers and the rest.

"The Angel of Mercy" tells the story of Eleanor Nightingale--a character that is part Antin, part Florence, part sheer fabrication. The nurse is one of four personae that were central to her art in the 1970s and 1980s, the others being an Elizabethan-style king, a Romantic-era ballerina and a contemporary black movie star. (The black movie star dons the other three roles--most notably as "Eleanora Antinova, Black Pearl of the Russian Ballet"--adding another layer to the dense construction of fictional identity.) The personae turn up in photographs, drawings, videos, films, performances and installations, examples of which will be in the LACMA show.

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